Santeria Priest Calls Richard "Kudo" Couto's Animal Abuse Allegations "Hate Speech"

Oba Ernesto Pichardo, the high priest and president of the Santeria church that won a landmark Supreme Court case, doesn't take kindly to a renegade animal-rights activist's claims that his faith practices "torture." In fact, he told Riptide yesterday afternoon, he wants to see Richard "Kudo" Couto arrested for breaking property and weapons laws. "He needs to tone down his rhetoric and educate himself," says Pichardo, "and he can do that in jail."

Couto spent more than a year breaking into farms in the Northwest Miami-Dade County known as the C-9 Basin, capturing video evidence of the area's thriving illegal slaughterhouse industry. He forced the hand of state and local authorities, who last Spring finally raided the area and dismantled it.

Last week, Couto told Riptide that an estimated fifty-percent of the slaughterhouse stock were animals doomed to become Santeria sacrifices, and provided us with graphic photos he claimed were evidence. Among Couto's claims: That puppy mills in the area were providing sacrifice animals for Santeria practicioners.

Pichardo, president of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, which in 1993 won a Supreme Court battle against the City of Hialeah concerning the legality of animal sacrifice, says Couto could spark a "hate crime" against his congregation. "We are in a crazy moment in our country," booms Pichardo in his Hialeah law office. "We don't need a person coming out of the woodwork, being led by an extremist who is lawless and who purports hate."

The Havana-born Pichardo says that Santeria sacrifices consist of a swift knife cut to an animal's carotid artery. Dogs and cats are never sacrificed. "Our faith recognizes that every animal has a soul," says Pichardo-- and there is no "torture" involved in Santeria practices.

As for Couto's photo of a garbage bag containing a decapitated goat and turtles, Pichardo says that it could have been discarded by devotees of "any Afro-Caribbean religion"-- but adds that Santeria practicioners are legally allowed to dispose of animal remains in the wild, as is their custom in some cases. While he doesn't deny that members of his faith may have bought goats or other animals at the C-9 Basin, Pichardo points out that they weren't the only ones. "To put us in with the words criminal, abuse, torture, is absolutely offensive to our faith," he says.

Pichardo wonders why, even after Couto openly broke various laws in our feature on him-- including ignoring "No Trespassing" notices, carrying two handguns, and stealing a pig from a slaughterhouse-- the activist hasn't been charged with any crimes. "He has no authority to do what he's doing," says Pichardo. "He's an extremist wearing guns, impersonating a law enforcement officer, raiding people's homes, and stealing people's property."

"What laws did I break?" Couto says when told of Pichardo's demands for his arrest. When reminded of the stolen pig and the trespassing, he laughs. "Oh, yeah. Well I do trespass, but the properties that I trespass on are some of the more illegal properties in the U.S."

Couto, who says he's been getting "a lot of death threats" since Riptide's post, stands by his claims and photos. "Most of the [sacrificed animals] I find, I don't see a small puncture wound under the chin," he says. "Maybe that's how [Pichardo] sacrifices his animals, but that doesn't mean that's what everybody in his church is doing."

Before the phone conversation ends, Couto issues a challenge: "Tell him to bring his information, and I'll bring my information, and we'll have a debate."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts